Friday 27 January 2012

Berdymuhammedow's White Revolution

No one can deny: Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedow’s re-election campaign in Turkmenistan is clean. So clean it is dazzling, dazzling as the noon sunlight reflected from virgin snow, as this nice photo gallery shows. I didn’t know that he had so many talents…

Opposition enjoys some ‘political reform’ in Kazakhstan

It was easy to believe that, after all the troubles last year in Kazakhstan, the deadly clashes in Zhanaozen in December and the Parliamentary elections this month – that came together with the promise of more democracy in the Central Asian giant – things might be quiet for a while there. Then, this week, the Kazakh police raided the headquarters of an opposition party and its leader’s home. stroke the perfect tone with its headline: “Kazakhstan 'political modernisation' opens with opposition raid”. The excuse for the raids was the suspicion that the Leader of the Alga Party, Vladimir Kuzlov, was involved in fomenting the protests in Zhanaozen, in which 16 people died. Besides him, two other well-known members of the opposition were this week sent to two months behind bars – a former presidential candidate (Serik Saparghali, who is now in hunger strike) and the editor of an independent newspaper.

Of course, it would be too much even for the most faithful supporter of the Government to believe that everything that happened in December was just an evil plan of opposition forces, so one official enquiry also blamed heavy-handedness of the police for the violence – three mid-ranking officers were arrested, although most of the security forces were praised for their actions. Likewise, local authorities in Zhanaozen were accused of (surprise! Who would guess?) funnelling money bound for job creation around the city into their own pockets. This prompted Kazakhstan long-time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to promise (surprise! Who would guess?) a new strategy to tackle corruption. Anyway, Nazarbayev is clearly taking advantage of what happened last year to send a message to those who criticise him, so certainly the instability was politically quite useful for him. The problem here is that, more and more, there is a risk that, again, things might go out of control – and then, again, no one knows what the consequences would be. As a theatre director who was in Zhanaozen said, “they are looking for enemies…” and the more violent they are against the opposition, the more violent the opposition’s response might be. In Zhanaozen, under heavy surveillance of the security forces, there is now a tense calm (the current curfew expires at the end of the month). However, not far from there, workers started a new strike like the one which set the stage for the unrest in December. Nazarbayev troubles are far, far from over.

Friday 20 January 2012

Everything changes to remain the same (by now)

Kazakhstan has just elected a new Parliament. Turkmenistan is about to vote for a (new?) president. Although elections usually lead to some sort of change, of course this is not true at all in Former Soviet Central Asia. Recent developments, however, show interesting signs of (possible) changes afoot. Or is it just me being very naïve?

In the big steppes of the north, of course, last Sunday Kazakhs strongly supported the party Nur Otan of its long time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But new rules were adopted to avoid what was happening since the 2007 elections: a Majlis (lower house of parliament) with no other party apart from the ruling party (that, incidentally, won 88% of the votes five years ago). So now any party that comes in second in an election, even those who do not clear the threshold of 7% of the votes, is guaranteed a place in the Parliament. This time, three parties were able to reach the threshold and were given seats. Even so, Nur Otan got 81% of the votes and 89% of the seats in the Majlis.

Last Sundays’s ballot, that was originally scheduled to take place later this year, was brought forward, already with the new rules, supposedly to accelerate a process of political change in the country. But this doesn’t mean there were any real changes after Sunday! Other parties that made it to the Parliament are very weak in terms of opposition – if they can be considered opposition at all. Take the second most voted, Ak Zol. This liberal party will apparently be a sidekick of Nur Otan. It was led in the elections by Azat Peruashev, a Nur Otan member until last July. There is a strategy widely used in electoral authoritarian regimes like Kazakhstan – create or fostering parties that nominally are in opposition, but in practice only exist to support the ruler’s claim that there is democracy. The only party considered real opposition and that took part in the ballot, the National Social Democratic Party, had its leader disqualified days before the vote and did not elect a single representative (read more here). To put in a nutshell: this new rules might be paving the way for real changes in the future, but, really, do you see a “pluralist” parliament now in Kazakhstan? And do you see this happening during Nazarbayev’s lifetime? The dictator commands genuine support, of course, especially in big cities that have seen the bulk of the economic bonanza of the last years. The old and battered argument that the country needs “stability” in order to advance in the economic sphere continues to be used again and again and is particularly effective when dealing with these elites. Terrorist attacks in the West and South, the bloody clashes in Zhanaozen (see my previous posts)… for the elites in Almaty and Astana, the moment is definitely wrong for any exciting moves. For now, the Majlis remains strongly in the hands of Nazarbayev; no party in the parliament represent any danger to him; the criticism of Western observers regarding irregularities in the ballot fell on the usual death ears; protests against irregularities in the vote were negligible; government agents closely monitor Zhanaozen for any further trouble. And… life goes on as normal in Nazarbayevland. The risks remain, though: Nazarbayev is old and will need to leave its throne soon; more terrorist attacks could (and most certainly will) take place sometime in the near future.

Moving south now, honestly, I was surprised when I read that the Parliament in Turkmenistan had passed a bill regulating the creation of political parties (read more here). My surprise itself is obviously not a surprise, since we are talking about the most repressive and non-democratic regime of the region, a country where there are no other parties at all apart from the ruling one. Like in Kazakhstan, however, the changes created by the new law won’t have any practical effect now – they won’t be valid for the February 12 presidential elections. Berdymukhamedow is of course the favorite; there are a couple of other candidates, but no real opposition voices were raised against the supreme leader - despite the recent success on the internet of a video that offers a rare glimpse of Berdymukhamedow’s lovely personality. If you haven’t seen you, please don’t miss it: click here. The Turkmen leader is seen not only treating their ministers like naughty children, but also making some, let’s say, controversial remarks against the Turks. Whereas in the West a video like this will destroy the career of any politician, in Turkmenistan it will certainly not affect at all the expected result of the presidential elections. It has been pointed out that Central Asians like strong leaders that are not afraid of using harsh words. That the lack of finesse is not a problem, quite the opposite, is expected of them. I, on the other hand, think the Central Asians, especially in Turkmenistan, simply don’t care – they still believe they can’t change those in power. Indeed, if they are thinking about elections, they are right. At least for the time being.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Happy New Year, Kazakhstan

It was a hell of a December for Kazakhstan. The country that until recently was known for its stability, for its pungent economy and openness for Western companies was suddenly taken by a turmoil that it was too myopic to see coming. Actually, the deadly clashes in the Western city of Zhanaozen were just the apex of a long process: oil workers had been protesting in the city since May, asking for higher wages, whereas the authorities insisted that they already had received a raise (If I were to leave in such a hellhole, in the middle of nowhere, probably I would ask for much more as well). Anyway, the clashes with the police took place exactly on the day in which Kazakhstan was celebrating its 20th Independence Anniversary. Strangely, the party was seen as an insult to those “hooligans” protesting for months. And what an unforgettable celebration it was indeed (Watch this short video), with at least 17 dead.

Regardless of the reasons for the protest itself and steering clear of the debate about the heavy-handedness of the authorities, there are many extremely concerning causes for concern in relation to what happened. First and foremost: the longtime Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is 71: by now he was supposed to be a wise aksakal (old man) and know how to deal with a simple strike. But, instead, he let the situation escalate to a level in which it became unbearable. What does it say about the prospect of Kazakhstan harboring a progressive, Western-style democracy anytime soon? It says that it is not going to happen. It says that Nazarbayev and the Kazakh elites behind him are definitely not open for negotiations, for reforms, for the people to have a real voice. One needs to be more civilised to be able to leave in a more open country. It is not the case, and apparently it will not be the case for a while. When time was needed to be political, Nazarbayev showed its hammer. That’s a pity, especially because Kazakhstan is holding parliamentary elections this month with the promise of changing its domestic politics. A presidential political advisor said in December that the elections will prepare the terrain to move Kazakhstan away from the “super-presidential” system of almighty Nazarbayev to some sort of parliamentary-presidential system. After what happened in Zhanaozhen? Haha, tell me another joke.

The situation in the city is still tense – the end of the curfew was postponed until the end of the month. What will happen after the curfew expires? Probably a lot of government agents will keep their eyes wide open and calm will be reestablished once more. An artificial calm, though, one that will not last until real change comes to the steppes.

Do you want another reason to be very concerned? The rise of islamist activity. Since I last wrote about the explosions in the West and the South of the country last year, new facts came to light about the islamist group called Soldiers of the Caliphate that claimed responsibility for the explosions in Atyrau (read more about the group here). The organisation apparently was formed by Kazakh people fighting in Kazakhstan on the Taliban side and has the goal of ousting Nazarbayev and creating a caliphate in the Kazakh lands – a goal remarkably similar to the one adopted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which, of course, as one can imagine because of its name, wants to remove Islam Karimov from power in Tashkent instead). If the islamists are able to tap the discontent generated by the recent violence in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan certainly can expect a nightmare scenario. One more reason for Nazarbayev to abandon any silly ideas of political reform now. The well-known argument that, for historical reasons, Islam is weaker in Kazakhstan than in other countries in the region, that most people in the country are moderate Muslims and that this would keep the country away for any sort of militancy, it is now officially flawed (although in the heavily Russified north nothing has happened so far).

Add to the recipe the fact that Nazarbayev will soon have to relinquish power, and a transition period may always lead to political instability. There are those who believe that the Arab Spring will eventually reach Turkestan. Difficult to say for sure. If this happens, I believe it will not be soon (probably not even this year) and will be even more violent. One key moment to watch will be the death of Karimov and Nazarbayev. While in Kazakhstan there are already some rising names quoted as possible successors for the current leader, in Uzbekistan no one knows for sure who the heir might be. In a country were radical islamists are known to operate, anything can happen in this scenario.